Linhart in command of Plum’s offense
Hunter Linhart spent the bulk of the 2017 football season locked in a three-way quarterback rotation with sophomore Anthony Little and senior Corey Thomas. But when it came time for Plum’s season finale against Fox Chapel, he got the keys to the Mustangs -- or at least their offense.
That game ended in a 42-14 loss, the final defeat in a 3-7 season, but it could mean good things for 2018. Just as Linhart could play that game with confidence, he likewise begins this fall as the undisputed starter under center for playoff-hopeful Plum.
He feels the weight off his shoulders now that he no longer has to look over them.
“I can go out there and relax and just run the play, not have to worry about anything,” Linhart said. “And if something goes wrong, I can come back and go ‘Hey, what did I do wrong?’ And I can fix it and go back to normal. I think it’s a little pressure off.”
Linhart begins the season not only as Plum’s No. 1 quarterback, but also as the only signal-caller with experience. Thomas, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury last September, graduated. So, too, did Dom Carlisano, who also took snaps. A heart condition forced Little, who passed for a team-high 489 yards, to give up football.
That leaves Linhart, who passed for 103 yards and a touchdown, with 85 of the yards and the score coming in that game against Fox Chapel. But instead of feeling pressure of being the lone survivor, the 6-foot-1, 185-pounder is embracing the challenge.
“I haven’t seen a kid change so much within an eight- or nine-month time period than I’ve seen him in my six years here,” Plum coach Matt Morgan said. “It’s amazing how different he is maturity-wise, technique-wise, leadership-wise. It’s everything you want out of your quarterback position.
“I’m super excited to see what he does this season. I think the sky’s the limit for him. As long as we protect and give him some time, he’s going to have a really big year, I believe.”
Linhart doesn’t possess the speed that made Thomas a dangerous running threat, so he likely won’t take off much from the pocket. Nor will he play defense, given his importance on offense. But he possesses a strong, accurate arm and a complete command of the offense.
“He’s progressed as a passer, first and foremost: understanding his reads better, building that relationship with his wide receivers,” offensive coordinator Adam Santoro said. “They change things sometimes on the fly ... the level where he is, being comfortable with the offense, and I think the level that all of us are as an offensive staff with him, making adjustments on the fly and whatnot, it gives him more confidence and lets him know that we believe in him and trust in him.”
That trust was built in the Fox Chapel game, and Linhart carried the responsibility of leadership through the offseason, helping take control of the weight room even during his spring track and field season. Linhart’s teammates named him a captain, giving him the most votes of any other Mustang.
Now Linhart is working on building trust, rapport and consistent play with a young group of skill position players after Plum lost a large senior class last season.
“It’s huge because right now, especially during camp, this is when you get out the little notches in your system and really smooth things out,” he said. “So if I see something that might be different or the coaches see something, this is whenever we fix it so that we don’t make that mistake again.”
Linhart said he’s vocal when needed, but he’s working on being “more personable” and more encouraging with the sophomores, juniors and freshmen who could see time at wide receiver and running back.
He’s not afraid of a little tough love, though. Told of a recent example of Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill throwing a rookie teammate out of the huddle after a missed training camp blocking assignment, Linhart said he would do the same “if they keep messing up.”
“You want your quarterback to be the general out there,” Morgan said. “We’ve had a revolving door of quarterbacks in our five years, and I feel like he’s very consistent and there’s no question who the guy is right now because every season there’s been that debate on who’s going to take the snaps. But Hunter is our clear-cut starter, and he’s our leader. We’ll go as far as Hunter goes.”
Plum is hoping Linhart can take the team back to the WPIAL playoffs for the first time since 2015. Even with a young roster, Morgan believes the Mustangs can surprise outsiders this season and contend for a spot in the Class 5A postseason.
“I think the key for us to go back to the playoffs is for each person to be mentally ready,” Linhart said. “You can fix all the physical stuff. You can fix that. It’s whenever people don’t know what they’re doing is when you have problems. The key for us is to be mentally prepared and have everybody know what they’re doing on every play, and then execute the play to the best that we can. If we do that on every play in every game, I think we should be perfectly fine.”